Remembering The Winter of ’78 And Posing Questions For Today

Pensioners not profits

By Pádraic Mac Coitir

With many parts of the country affected by the recent cold weather, and three recent deaths in Dublin and Wicklow attributed to hypothermia, a former blanket man reflects on his time in the H-Blocks during the winter of 1978.

I was walking through a snow storm in Colin Glen recently and was struck at how beautiful it was. Blackbirds, robins, thrushes and other birds were flying from tree to tree in search of food and I thought this is all that a man of my age could ever want.

When I got home and turned on the radio most of the reports were about the negative aspects of winter- pensioners not getting fuel allowances, people dying because of the cold and others not being able to cope. Further reports were about how cold it will get in days to come and there was talk of records being set as the temperature decreased further.

Sometimes it can be difficult for us to comprehend just how cold it can be. We see young people running about in their t-shirts, others with a light coat and even others wrapping up as if going to Siberia. So we can all adapt to different types of weather.

Of course there are those living here who have very little choice in how to withstand the cold. It’s estimated that in the six counties alone 1,000 people died due to cold related illnesses last year, half of the homes here cannot afford to properly heat their homes and those in positions of power are doing little to alleviate these very real problems.

While in the H-Blocks during the blanket protest we endured what must have been the worst winter ever. In fact I have since heard that records show the coldest place in Ireland was in Magheralin, close to Long Kesh, where it was -17 centigrade in January 1979.

In March 1978 we embarked on a no-wash protest and shortly after we smashed our windows to allow us more air as the screws poured very strong disinfectant into our cells. We weren’t too concerned about having no windows because the weather then was fine and it gave us the opportunity to communicate easier. However, as the weeks and months went by we knew it was going to be a lot harder, with the screws becoming more violent, the food becoming even more scarce and of course the onslaught of winter.

POWs Poster

Sitting here in the warmth of my home it’s difficult to imagine what we went through that winter. I was in the cell with Bellaghy man, Paul McGlinchey, and like the others in adjoining cells we would try to raise morale with sing-songs, quizzes and Irish language classes. As the days got shorter and the frost began to appear on the fences and barbed wire we were less inclined to get up to our windows for a yarn – it was easier to stay close to the limited warmth of the pipes that ran along the back of the cell.

We would constantly talk about the food that our parents made for us and also looked forward to the day when we would get hot baths and showers. Of course this didn’t completely stop the numbing cold that was ever present. The cell floor was almost unbearable to walk on in our bare feet; the two well worn blankets were no barrier against the icy winds that whipped around the bare cells. But we were determined to stick it out despite all of this.

Those dark days were a nightmare for us but we were young and full of a rebellious streak that warmed our hearts.

However, it is an indisputable fact that, in the second decade of the 21st century, winter brings with it a dread for many across Ireland and for older people in particular.

The high levels of fuel poverty recorded for older people on the island of Ireland are driven by all aspects of the fuel poverty model – poor housing conditions, energy inefficient housing, rising fuel prices and low income. The majority of older people live in their own homes and those homes tend to be older properties.

Today, with billions of pounds worth of natural gas and oil resources lying off our shores, and at a time when those same resources are facing unprecedented levels of exploitation for private financial gain, it is incredible that the elderly, and families living in poverty, must continue to endure the negative impacts of winter each year.

How many more will fall ill, or perhaps die, due to the indifference of those sitting in their ivory towers?

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